The Dulwich Picture Gallery's current exhibition, which runs until 18 April (see What's On page ), celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Crystal Palace's re-opening on Sydenham Hill in 1854, after it had set the character and success of the 1851 Great Exhibition in Hyde Park. Its creator, Sir Joseph Paxton rebuilt it at nearly double the size of the original, at the head of a magnificent park with cascades and fountains flowing down the hillside as at Chatsworth, from water accumulated in Brunel's two enormous raised storage tanks.

Public excitement matched that which attended the Great Exhibition's inauguration three years earlier. The vast building became a popular venue for Handel music festivals, fireworks displays and many other events for public edification and entertainment. Easy access by railway brought in people in their thousands. Despite its early popularity it never realised the profit for which its promoters had hoped. Its fortunes declined well before the 1914-18 war, when it was requisitioned by the Government, and never recovered before this decaying monument to Imperial splendour perished in the fire of 30 November 1936. 

The site today

The site has remained derelict ever since. Terraces have crumbled, the cascades and fountains disappeared long ago, and the park has lost nearly all sense of integration. The public campaign to keep the top site free was a great victory, in which many of us joined. After its success, much of the indignation with Bromley Council degenerated into a number of petty skirmishes over minor issue accompanied by unedifying rivalry among some local factions, over who should take credit for past successes and assert control over the publication of new proposals.

Growing controversy over the way forward

This controversy has already spilled over on to the Picture Gallery exhibition, because it provides a showcase for some of the ideas which have so far emerged to revitalise the top site. Among the most spectacular of these is Chris Wilkinson's (the Gateshead "blinking eye" Bridge) vision of a tethered great glass airship, occupying the aerial space of the old Crystal Palace's central transept but leaving the ground under it almost entirely clear, so that even trees could still grow under it and birds fly through them, as they did inside the Crystal Palace. Many will applaud this idea's revolutionary approach while others will be outraged by its assault on conventional presumptions about architecture, as indeed they were about Paxton's scheme 150 years ago. It would certainly improve the quality of present debate if the most vociferous protesters did not behave only as if they were mortified at being upstaged by the elegance of something entirely new. Of course any proposed solution should be fully exposed to public opinion, but comments should at least be constructive and not just relate to an idea's provenance. Hundreds of proposals were put forward after all, for the 1851 Great Exhibition before Paxton's idea was accepted with general acclaim.

Too great a burden for Bromley

Resurrection on this scale is well beyond the resources of Bromley Council, the park's luckless present custodians which already has more than enough on its plate. First, it is still engaged in a legal dispute with contractors engaged to renovate the lower park, which after spending £3.5 million they seem to have left it in a worse state than when they started. This has now been overtaken by the more immediate problem that Sport England's lease of the National Sports Centre site from Bromley Council expires on 24 March this year.

The National Sports Centre buildings have aged and dated considerably since they were put up in the 1970's, and will need much more capital to refurbish than either Bromley or Sport England can muster. London's bid for the 2012 Olympic Games approaches and the Crystal Palace training facilities are an essential part of its credibility. They remain vital to a number of UK athletic organisations and are still used by the general public. 

A role for the Greater London Authority?

Responsibility for strategic planning and transport arrangements in London is firmly in the hands of the Greater London Authority. The Mayor has but together a full financial package for the National Sports Centre and has now made a more radical proposal that the GLA should take a 125-year lease of the entire park from Bromley Council. The plan is that Bromley Council would retain freehold ownership of the park, and remain the local planning authority so that all new proposals would still have to obtain local planning permission. At present the GLA lacks direct legal powers to own parks and open spaces and is looking for a way to carry through this proposal. If successful it will put the whole debate over the Crystal Palace's future on a London-wide or nation al level and eclipse some of the local squabbling, which would be welcome. 

Public Enquiry

Meanwhile, a Public Enquiry is being conducted into objections to Bromley Council's draft Unitary Development Plan (UDP), which has proposed, among other things, to remove Metropolitan Open Land status from the Crystal Palace top site. The Dulwich Society and two other local amenity societies have engaged Philip Kolvin to represent us over this. He has quietly done a deal with Bromley Council, that it will withdraw its proposal to re-designate the top site, provided we do not object to its plans to re-site the National Sports Centre. The present structure is subject to a conservation order, but the object is to rebuild it more in the direction of the low-level railway station, which would avoid cutting the park virtually in half. From an amenity viewpoint this seems a good idea.

A great deal may be about to happen. We have tried to keep abreast of events and intend to keep our members fully in the picture. Meanwhile the Picture Gallery exhibition provides an excellent opportunity for us to understand the Crystal Palace's past better, and to use this to fuel our imaginations more effectively about the future. It is worth remembering that Sir Joseph Paxton did not only build a mammoth greenhouse to house a successful national exhibition, he was a also the country's leading horticulturist in his day, a pioneer of public parks and open spaces in urban areas and, very early in the railway age, a great champion of better public access to their enjoyment. The planning of present-day London could hardly have a better role-model.

Bill Higman

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